Wikistrat’s Facebook and Twitter followers recently engaged in a 24-hour exclusive Q&A session with one of Wikistrat’s Senior Analysts, Valentina Colombo. Questions and Ms. Colombo’s answers are transcribed below.
Valentina Colombo’s research focuses on democratization in the Middle East and North Africa and on radical Islam in the Middle East and Europe. She teaches geopolitics of the Islamic world at the European University in Rome and is a Senior Fellow at the European Foundation for Democracy in Brussels. She is also a member of the Committee for Italian Islam at the Ministry of Interior, Rome. Her publications (in Italian) include Christianity in the Arab World (2013), Forbidden in the Name of Allah (2010) and Islam: Instructions for Use (2009).
Mabel Gonzalez Bustelo: Do you see the Muslim Brotherhood, Hizb ut-Tahrir and similar organizations as potential allies in the struggle against terrorism and violence including first Al Qaeda and now ISIS? What could be the impact of political events in Egypt, notably their criminalization and declaration as a terrorist organization, in their political evolution and influence in the Muslim world?
Answer: When ISIS’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the “return of caliphate,” a heated debate was ignited among the most relevant actors of radical Islam, in the Middle East and in the West, about the Islamic legitimacy of the establishment of a new caliphate. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire it was the first time that someone declared the return of the caliphate ruling on a specific territory, but at the same time with universal aspiration for all Muslims. A closer look at the different reactions shows that in the Islamic world, there are at least two main ways to understand the caliphate: the jihadi one, which is unambiguous and clear, and the Muslim Brotherhood’s, which is more subtle and pragmatic.
The Brotherhood, Hizb ut-Tahrir, Hezbollah and Al Qaeda all reacted in a negative and critical way. All organizations criticized the way al-Baghdadi imposed a caliphate from above without the consensus of the Islamic community. The International Union of Muslim Scholars, linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and headed by Yusuf Qaradawi, said although it shared the “dream” of reestablishing the caliphate, “Islam has taught us and the school of life has taught us that large projects require great reflection, deep preparation, a convergence of forces.” A caliph needed to be “representative of the umma,” it added, and it was only for this reason “the announcement of the caliphate is not sufficient to establish the caliphate.”
This is why I do not believe the Muslim Brotherhood or any other Islamist organization could be a partner in the fight against ISIS. It has also to be noted that after the beginning of the military coalition attacks on ISIS, the Brotherhood has been very critical of intervention.
As far as the criminalization of the Brotherhood in Egypt is concerned, it will certainly shift their main Middle Eastern headquarters from Egypt to some other safe haven such as Qatar or Turkey. As a matter of fact, the Turkish government, ideologically linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, has recently acted in an ambiguous way in the fight against ISIS, showing that the ideology of the Brotherhood and ISIS can sometimes converge.
“Curious Wisdom“: Is a “moderate” jihadist simply an oxymoron? If so, why do we continue to hear this label as if it is valid?
Answer: In 2009, Fareed Zakaria wrote in Newsweek magazine that it should be “worth stepping back and trying to understand the phenomenon of Islamic radicalism” because “not all these Islamists advocate global , host terrorists or launch operations against the outside world — in fact, most do not.”
Then he gave a shocking example:
Consider the most difficult example, the Taliban. The Taliban have done all kinds of terrible things in Afghanistan. But so far, no Afghan Taliban has participated at any significant level in a global terrorist attack… Most Taliban want Islamic rule locally, not violent jihad globally.
I believe that describing as “moderate” a jihadi only because he is fighting in Afghanistan in Pakistan or in a faraway country is simply a naive oxymoron, but it does not change the content of the term jihadi nor does it change the aims and strategy of jihadis.
A similar oxymoron has been used after the so-called Arab spring to define the Muslim Brotherhood as “moderate” extremists. However, as Mohammed Charfi, former Tunisian minister of education, observed in his essay, “Islam et liberté,”
Today the observers call a “moderate” Islamist the person who, with Westerners, uses reasonable language and who does not choose an openly violent action. However, even though his style is calm and the rejection of violence seems sincere, since the movement is always linked to sharia and the sacralization of history, his moderation remains provisional and indicates a strategy of waiting, because the ingredients of radicalization have not disappeared.